ADVERTISEMENT

The illegal purchase of an African leopard for a wildlife sanctuary led to a federal court plea deal for a Chautauqua County animal lover.

Jacqueline Wisniewski, 44, of Sinclairville, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott.

Authorities said she and her husband, Kenneth, operate the 54-acre JNK's Call of the Wild Sanctuary on Millcreek Road in Sinclairville.

A Fredericksburg, Ohio, man -- Brett A. Hewitt, 36, who illegally sold leopards to Wisniewski and several people in other cities -- also pleaded guilty after an investigation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He was sentenced Thursday to one year on probation and fined $2,000.

Wisniewski admitted that she illegally purchased a leopard from Hewitt for $1,300 in July 2004, driving to his business, West Wing Exotics, to pick up the animal.

"The defendant knew that African leopards . . . are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and therefore cannot be sold or transported in interstate commerce," said Assistant U.S. Attorney MaryEllen Kresse.

Under the terms of her plea agreement, the government said, Wisniewski agreed to forfeit all rights to two leopards that authorities seized from her sanctuary in 2005. The government said she also agreed to give up any permits she has to possess, buy, sell or transport protected wildlife.

It was not clear late Thursday whether the sanctuary will be allowed to remain open, but Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the Fish & Wildlife Service, said it was her understanding the couple would not be allowed to keep government-protected wildlife species there.

The Wisniewskis and their attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth, could not be reached to comment. Wisniewski's sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2008.

On its Web site, the 15-year-old sanctuary describes itself as a not-for-profit organization providing care and support for more than 100 breeds and species of animals, including lions, tigers, bears, camels, pigs, dogs and cats.

"What started out as a hobby has become support for the conservation of some of the world's rarest animals," the Web site states.

In July, Buth told The Buffalo News that the Wisniewskis are "well-intentioned people who love animals.

"They treat these animals like members of their own family," the attorney said at the time.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com